Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The real class divide

Charles Murray is on a roll. In 1994, Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's controversial book, The Bell Curve, was first published. Though a best seller, criticism of the book was widespread and often vicious. The fundamental idea of the book is that intelligence--as a product of both genetics and environment--is a better predictor of success in life than socio-economic background and education. The book broached the issue of race in this regard and its conclusions there were the principal reasons for the criticism.

But such criticism was largely misplaced, in my view. The real problem with the book is that the authors failed to fully appreciate how the changing dynamics of U.S. society would manifest themselves as time wore on. They argued that the elite class of citizens--the coupling of high-IQ professionals--would steadily develop into a wealthy upper, upper class, living apart from the remainder of society. They assumed that wealth was inexorably linked to the process.

In Murray's latest book--Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010--he analyzes the trends of middle to lower class white Americans, as compared to upper class white Americans. I've discussed the book before, both in relation to single motherhood and to income inequality. And while what he finds in the book largely follows the predictions in The Bell Curve, there is a significant difference. Namely, it is the breakdown of social structures that create the circumstances to allow the divergence of outcomes.

Sound too complicated? Consider this: In 1994, Murray and Herrnstein found higher marriage rates among the lower and middle classes than in the upper classes. Now, a mere eighteen years later, the reverse is true. Marriage rates for the lower and middle classes have dropped off a cliff, while they have not changed all that much for the upper classes. The divergence in inequality follows the change in rates, suggesting that the rates are not a consequential, but rather a causal factor.

This is a significant point, for those in the middle and lower classes that follow the traditional paradigm of American success--work hard, raise a family, etc.--still can and do achieve wealth, significant wealth even. The opportunity for upward mobility exists, but it is being stymied not by income inequality but by the destruction of the traditional paradigm, via policy.

In a new piece in Time Magazine, Murray notes a rarely spoken off reality, that it's not always about wealth. He gives an example of a hard-working, industrious guy he calls Hank:
[Hank] built a successful auto-repair business and expanded it to 30 locations, and now his stake in the business is worth $100 million. He is not just in the 1%; he’s in the top fraction of the 1% — but he’s not part of the new upper class. He went to a second-tier state university, or maybe he didn’t complete college at all. He grew up in a working-class or middle-class home and married a woman who didn’t complete college. He now lives in a neighborhood with other rich people, but they’re mostly other people who got rich the same way he did.
There are a lot of Hanks these days. There really are. Maybe they're not all worth $100 million, but there are plenty worth well over $1 million. They are not--however--the real upper class, insofar as they either lack access to political power or are simply unconcerned with getting it; they're more than happy to keep living their lives.

The real upper class--the ones with their hands on the reins of power--are something a little different:
It consists of the people who run the country. By “the people who run the country,” I mean two sets of people. The first is the small set of people — well under 100,000, by a rigorous definition — who are responsible for the films and television shows you watch, the news you see and read, the success (or failure) of the nation’s leading corporations and financial institutions and the jurisprudence, legislation and regulations produced by government. The second is the broader set, numbering a few million people, who hold comparable positions of influence in the nation’s major cities.
As Murray notes, this group has their own culture, their own lifestyle. Their children live sheltered lives, largely interacting with others in this group, alone. Once upon a time, this was purely a function of wealth and restricted to the very tippy-top of the wealth pyramid. Not so, anymore. And why? Because of the growth of government. It is, in fact, a realization of Max Weber's fears of continued bureaucratization of society. For the political access of this group is very much a permanent thing; nepotism rules, both for appointed and elected offices. Career paths to both are largely limited to those with the access to specific schools and institutions.

And at the same time, the expansion of rules--under the guise of helping the poor and achieving social justice--limit the remainder of society and contribute to the breakdown of necessary social structures. Yet somehow, a great majority of this real upper class sees themselves as champions of the downtrodden, as saviors for the rest of society. They actually identify with things like the OWS movement, having deluded themselves into thinking that--somehow--they share the interests and needs of the 99%, oblivious to the reality: they are the real reason for the dichotomy they think they can undo.

When the Hanks of the world complain, they are criticized as if they were the problem, they are attacked for refusing to pay their fair share, made to feel guilty for their success and the traditional paradigm of living that characterizes their existence. When the Hanks dare to pursue political power, they are quickly marginalized with whatever tools are available to those in the real upper class. They become the enemies of  the rest of society, even as they merely try to set that remainder free...

Cheers, all.


  1. I read the same thing, and came to pretty much the same conclusion.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Dan. I love to hear people agree with me, since it seems to happen so infrequently. :)

  3. I have the same problem. I assume it's because they can't understand my (our) greatness.